Naked, the Depiction of Women
Jan 28th, 2019 • Uncategorised
In this post I am considering my photography with naked women, which has been a significant part of my photography since 1970, and this article is as much a vehicle for self reflection as anything else.
Writing this was triggered from a line in Julian Bowron's speech to open the final iteration of my second twenty four year survey show at Mandurah Alcoa Gallery. In this comment Julian referred to the danger that my work is given less regard because of my work with women. As though there is a generaly held view that the depiction of nature is good, but depicting women is not. The implication implied being that women are not part of nature . . . !
I have always tried to make these images personal, engaged and honest represations of the subjects of my photographs. I see my work with women as part of my depiction of nature and the landscape. Like my depiction of the landscape, my work with naked women is becoming increasingly political. For me photography of the nude in this time needs serious consideration
In the mind of the general public there seems to be a shift to neo-prudery keeping pace with the world wide move to the political right and to religious extremism, as in the number of Christofascist world leaders at the moment. It seems to me there is a conflation in the general mind between the depiction of naked people and pornography. The regular blocking of innocuous images on Facebook is an example of this.
Workers using photographic media are the most criticized in regard to female depiction. Sculptors, painters and writers are given more tollerance and can almost do what they want.
The Male Gaze is a term used in feminist debate to cover the discussion of the depiction of women by men. Since 1975 the rightness of the depiction of the female nude has been questioned and before I examine my own work I will give two quotes. But before that I quote from John Berger, who in 1972 famously stated.
"To be naked is to be oneself. To be nude is to be seen naked by others and yet not recognised for oneself. A naked body has to be seen as an object in order to become a nude. . . Nakedness reveals itself. Nudity is placed on display. . . Nudity is a form of dress. . .
Ways of Seeing, BBC, 1972
Historically the phrase ‘The Male Gaze’ came from film critic Laura Mulvey in her essay Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema (1975).
“The gender power asymmetry is a controlling force in cinema and constructed for the pleasure of the male viewer, which is deeply rooted in patriarchal ideologies and discourses.”
“This means that the male viewer is the target audience, therefore their needs are met first and that this problem stems from an old fashioned, male-driven society. . .”
Recently, 2016, Kathleen Navin restated the Male Gaze position in relation to poetry at the start of an essay on three women poets, I quote
“Women hold the central position of object in the majority of literary tradition whereupon they are written of, for and upon as the ‘other’. These representations do not recognise the individuality of each woman, nor require the authority or consent of women. The ‘gaze’ is processed by a receiver/reader as knowledge of reality. Although the ‘gaze’ creates a shared reference and aesthetic experience, it is disempowering to women as it is coded by male subjectivity from a perspective of desire or pleasure. The ‘gaze’ has created a popular conception of women as sexual object, without power or agency, as subordinate to the male”
“To redirect the gaze women poets must claim their identity beyond objectification by owning their autonomy through inter-astistic relationships . .”
Bareknuckle Poet Volume 2 - 2016
To sum up the above, the general argument is that the depiction of women shows them as objectified for male desire and in this process are disempowered. I agree that the much of the depiction of women is disempowering. Examples of objectification exist in mass media and advertising. Also to be questioned is the new "Fine Art Nude" field of photography, which is rarely fine, rarely art, never political and despite the subject matter, is rarely erotic.
I feel the feminist argument looses sight of the basic biology of seeing. Humans use sight as their primary sense. In addition to enable the finding of food, shelter and to see danger, sight is also used to find a breeding partner. This simple observation gives the biological imperative that make women visually attractive to men, in particular healthy women of breeding age. This is in our biology and is the basis of the desire of men to look at women. By extension, this desire has also driven depiction of the female nude in art, not only in Western art from the Renaissance, but also in Asian art and in ancient Egyptian and Roman art. This implies that the depiction of the femail nude is primarily erotic, but it does not have to be, and my iimages certainly are not
Photography is by its nature an objective medium. Photography depends on a tangible subject to produce an image in a camera, which makes photography, film and video different from other visual media. Writers, poets, painters and sculptors can freely invent, but even when staged and directed a photograph is a recording of a visual event at a specific time and place. A photograph is an objective document regardless of the subjective content.
The mirror to this is that an objective image possesses a subjective content, like the Taoist symbol showing an alternation of opposites, each with the seed of the other within itself. This dance of opposites is one of the reasons a photographic image can be so powerful. The reciprocation between subjective and objective readings, each containing the seed of the other.
Until now most serious photography of women as been a celebration. However, for me the photography of the female nude in the twenty first century has become a political act. Celebration of perceived beauty for itself is no longer enough and it is important to make images that confront and question the viewer, for the image to look back into the viewer.
Part of this planned new direction is choice of subjects to work with. I prefer to work with women who have natural pubic hair, which is important to me on several levels. On one level, pubic hair denotes woman, while shaved connotes child, and on a practical level pubic hair is a visual shield against the disclosure of too much personal information. My other preference, actually a requirement, is no tattoos.
As already stated, I see my women photographs as contiguous with my work in the forests where I live and the more peaceful work on the coast at the southern edge of the forest.
The women I have worked with since 1970 have not only engaged with the work willingly and have enjoyed the experience of being naked, being seen naked and being photographed naked. In many cases they have actively collaborated in the development of the work. Without this engaged participation, and at its best collaboration, the pictures thus far could not have been made. The strongest emotional response to the women who have worked with me over the years is an enormous level of respect, respect tor the strength of women who feel comfortable with themselves and with working towards the images we produce.
A major concern of mine comes from the mass circulation possible with digital media. When images are exhibited in a gallery people with camera-phones can make quick snaps and upload them to the Wise and Wonderful Web in a few seconds. (This was done by school boys in Mandurah during my exhibition there in 2018.) Because of this digital "sharing" I have deleted almost all images from this website that can identify a specific person. This has meant showing faceless images, which is a pity, but it is a partial answer to the digital sharing problem. This is, of course, self censorship, something I fear in journalism, but very much needed at this time in this field of photography.
My plans for future bodies of work have the depiction of women softening the figure-ground relationship so there is a mergence between the woman and the landscape. My planned work is also becoming more political, which is good.
Final words, I have at times felt pressured about my work with women, but I am glad I have done it. It has been an important aspect of my work since 1970 and I do not apologise.
I will end with a response from a friend based from Prague who visited my 24 year survey exhibition, and who commented
". . . And "Woman and Clay" made me so uncomfortable I had to look away several times before I could take in the fluid and starkly sensual depiction of a woman embodying nature. To see the goddess innate in every woman hanging in front of me was astonishing and empowering."
RD, personal communication 2017
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